Sunday, March 7, 2010

Suggestions for Reading Classics

reading Image by Sister72
Guest posting today is one of my blogging buddies, MJMBecky from One Literature Nut.  Since it's Classics Month, Becky is going to give me everyone tips on how to get through those classic books we want to read.  Becky is an English teacher, has an MA in English Lit, and has read way more classic novels than I ever hope to, so she knows of what she speaks.  And let's face it, everyone could use some help getting through those books that we know are worth the effort but aren't exactly easy reading.

Welcome, Becky!

Many people struggle with reading classic novels, whether it’s because the cultures they represent are out of date and foreign, the language is old fashioned and antiquated, or because the storylines are slow moving with too many details of nature.  All of these are valid reasons for not really enjoying a celebrated classic, and can take a little practice to get used to (or overlook…ha, ha) so that the book seems more approachable.

I don’t know that I have any rule on how to dive into a classic, but will say that I do have a few suggestions that I have used, and have recommended to my students:

  • Choose the classic wisely.  Ask someone who knows you well, or even a local librarian, what they think you might enjoy, based on your current interests.
  • Ask a friend to read it with you, and give each other goals to reach so that you keep it moving, and have things to discuss together.  A lot of times, you’ll feel as though you have to talk to someone about these novels, so having someone along for the ride can be a great idea.
  • Rather than reading a novel, try a classic play.  There are loads of great plays out there, and they are so fun to read!  Try a George Bernhard Shaw play, or something by Oscar Wilde.  You’ll be surprised how many plays are real comedies, with great happy endings just around the corner!
  • Look for the novel on film.  Yes, you heard me right.  Sometimes those fabulous BBC films and Masterpiece Theater productions can save your life!  About ten years ago I tried to get through Doctor Zhivago.  I was doing all right until I hit a complicated scene that involved all sorts of military groups, and politics that had me completely lost.  They had me so confused, in fact, that I lost the storyline as well.  I decided to watch the film, and soon figured out what was going on, and was back on track!
  • Look at SparkNotes.  Yep.  Once again, I know this might seem like a shortcut or controversial, but chapter summaries published for many novels are quite good.  If you find that you just don’t get the last 20 pages you read, try reading a summary or two to get you back on track.  Besides, it’s very much like going to class and listening to the discussions and explanations made by a professor or teacher that then allow you to feel like you really get it again.  SparkNotes can serve a similar experience when you’re reading on your own.
  • Remove distractions and maybe even grab a pen.  Let’s face it.  Classics can command more of our attention than a more contemporary piece of fiction. I know when I’m reading a classic, I just can’t have the TV on in the background!
  • Look up background information on the time period and author.  As we begin a new novel with a classroom of students, we often introduce the time period and author as a way of helping them get their minds around what they’re going to be reading. 
  • Read it serially.  What I mean here is that you should read it the way many authors actually used to present them, a couple of chapters at a time.  Yes, this can take you months to finish, but can ease you into a daunting novel.  Charles Dickens very famously penned many of his novels in this fashion, only releasing a chunk of pages or chapters at a time.  Look at it as your chance to read a book like you would watch a weekly TV show!
  • Find a great graphic novel version of your classic, and read it as or after you’ve read your full version.

I hope that some of these ideas help!  Honestly, if you enjoy reading, any aversion you feel to reading classics might just boil down to the fact that you hated having a teacher (such as myself) push you into one as an assignment.  Right?  Well, venture out on your own and see what’s out there, and give a classic another try!


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